How Radio Taught Me to Write Short in Print

May 13, 2014 at 12:14 pm Leave a comment

ImageHere’s how I write a 2,500-word article: I write it to 4,000 words, then cut it back.

Know how I write a 1,500-word article? The same way.

I keep ending up at 4,000, so the shorter the assignment, the more kittens I have to drown. So I was thrilled to see Roy Peter Clark—whose “Fifty Writing Tools” greased my transition from academic researcher to journalistic storyteller 10 years ago—has published a book called How to Write Short.

It’s the hardest thing for me to do. Early on, it had to do with my ego: “You know who wrote those 2,500 extra words? I did! Obviously they are too brilliant to cut.” My first magazine article, a 2006 piece for Oxford American, went off to the editor at 8,000 words and came back very quickly at 4,500. It was so much better.

Eight years later, and I’m still going too long. I’d like to think it just has to do with overreporting now, and maybe a desire for readers not to miss the complexity of whatever human affairs I’m chronicling. (It’s still my ego.)

Even though I still struggle with writing short, I want to share a trick I learned to focus my stories to the point where they can be told very, very quickly. I learned it not at a newspaper, not at a magazine, not in a creative writing workshop, but during my employment as a public radio producer.

Writing for broadcast is the best way to learn writing short, especially on a daily deadline. A complicated paragraph in print you can go back and read again. You cannot re-read something someone said on TV or on the radio. It has to be very clear and compelling the first time.

When I was a producer at “Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast,” a news and culture program on Baltimore’s WYPR-FM, I was responsible for researching, booking guests, and writing scripts for interview segments. Each script came with an introduction the host would read to set up the issue before announcing the guest. It’s similar to the intros you hear NPR hosts read before a reported segment. A good one should never go more than 30 seconds. That’s about 90 words, tops.

Producers also had to write a short description of the segment to air in the “billboard,” the one minute at the beginning of the program that serves as a table of contents for the hour-long program. A billboard entry needs to be between 25 and 40 words to fit within that minute.

We’d also have to give each segment a sub-headline for the website, about 10 to 20 words.

The shortest description of the story ran in the “promo,” a 20-second bit we’d run throughout the day and overnight that describes two segments in the next day’s program. To fit the promo, each segment description had to stay between eight and 12 words.

To keep track of all the “copy” for Maryland Morning segments, I built an MS Access database with fields for each of the segment descriptions. (You say anal, I say organized.)

Filling out that database for several radio segments a week sharpened my writing more than anything before or since.

I left WYPR in November and have been doing mostly print work. When I struggle to focus, it’s because I haven’t done this simple exercise between reporting the story and writing it: composing a radio-style intro, billboard, subhed, and promo. A 90-word version of the story, a 35-word version, a 15-word version, and an eight-word version.

Tomorrow, Al Jazeera America will publish a piece I reported on the potential to begin exporting massive amounts of the natural gas that’s been discovered over the past decade in American shale formations. Did I do the exercise before I wrote? No, I was bad and I did not.

But here I’ll try, so I can look back and make sure my piece was focused enough, and so you can get a sense of how this exercise could work for you.

Introduction: This week, federal regulators plan to release an environmental assessment of a planned natural gas export terminal on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline. It’s one of 13 proposals under review, as the U.S. moves to export the newly bountiful supply of natural gas being fractured out of underground shale formations. In this story, our reporter visits Calvert County, where the proposed gas plant sits just six miles from two nuclear reactors whose construction in the 1970s launched decades of economic development and tied the county’s fate to that of the energy industry.

Billboard: For decades, liquefied natural gas has entered the U.S. at a terminal on the Chesapeake Bay. This week, federal regulators weigh in a plan to start exporting. Today, we’ll hear what’s at stake for Calvert County—and the American economy.

Subhed: Liquefied natural gas exports may be coming to the Chesapeake Bay. What does it mean for the local environment—and the global economy?

Promo: Natural gas exports force Calvert County to balance safety and economic development.

Very useful. Not good, but useful. Is the story focused? I’ll check the comments at america.aljazeera.com tomorrow and find out.

Now—time to order that book.

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NEWS
- A much prettier website with my journalistic highlights is at lawrencelanahan.com.
- Disappearing Ink released its first album, "There Is No Time and Nothing's Been," in December 2014. It's available on iTunes.
- After almost five years at WYPR, I'm back to freelancing. Editors can reach me at llanahan@gmail.com.
- The Art of Social Critique: Painting Mirrors of Social Life includes my chapter "New Possibilities and Old Limitations of Political Art in The Wire."
- You can still buy my 2004 self-titled EP.

ACADEMIC EXPLOITS
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